Friday, June 13, 2008

On asking the right questions

While reading Thiselton's brilliant The Hermeneutics of Doctrine recently, which I will review in the next few weeks, I had a surprisingly simple 'ah ha!' moment. 'Gadamer follows R. G. Collingwood', Thiselton explains, 'in the belief that we can say that we understand "only when we understand the question to which something is the answer ..."' (p. 4).

I am presently running a bible course in Tübingen, looking at the Apostle Paul, and the relevance of this statement hit me with fresh insight. One of the foundations for understanding the Apostle, I am arguing (following Wright, peace be upon him), is the relation between 'creation' and 'covenant' (cf. Eph. 1-3; Rom. 1-11; Col. 1:15-20; Gal. 3-4; 2 Cor. 3-5; 1 Cor. 15 etc.). So I started the course this evening with the following words:

In order to best understand a text, it is important to know the question(s) to which that text is supposed to be an answer. For Paul, this means we need to understand the importance of the relation between creation and covenant.

I explained the first part of the proposition in the following way:

Imagine if an alien comes to earth and discovers a phone book, our green man will not be able to understand the lists of numbers unless he has some understanding of human communication, technology and specifically the phone system. He may sit down with the phone book in front of him and develop all kinds of theories concerning what kind of information it gives him, and what the phonebook personally say to him, but unless he knows some of the necessary background information he won't be able to formulate the right questions about the purpose and content of the phone book.

I continued with reference to an amusing story:

In reading Paul we are reading somebody else's mail. And whether we come to his letters with the right questions will determine how far we understand him. An amusing, and extreme, example of misunderstanding somebody else's mail is worth citing:

An American Minneapolis couple decided to go to Florida to experience warm weather during a particularly icy winter. They planned to stay at the same hotel where they spent their honeymoon 20 years earlier. Because of hectic schedules, it was difficult to coordinate their travel schedules.
So, the husband left Minnesota and flew to Florida on Thursday, with his wife flying down the following day. The husband checked into the hotel. There was a computer in his room, so he decided to send an email to his wife. However, he accidentally left out one letter in her email address, and without realising his error, sent the email.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Houston , a widow had just returned home from her husband's funeral. He was a minister who died and went to be with Christ following a heart attack. The widow decided to check her email expecting messages from relatives and friends. After reading the first message, she screamed and fainted. The widow's son rushed into the room, found his mother on the floor, and saw the computer screen which read:

To: My Loving Wife
Subject: I've Arrived
Date: October 16, 2005
I know you're surprised to hear from me. They have computers here now and you are allowed to send emails to your loved ones. I've just arrived and have been checked in. I've seen that everything has been prepared for your arrival tomorrow. Looking forward to seeing you then!!!! Hope your journey is as uneventful as mine was.
P.S. Sure is freaking hot down here!!!!

This happened because of an unfortunate coincidence of appropriate language in two very different situations. Does the fact that we use the same language as Paul (such as 'gospel', 'the righteousness of God', 'sin' etc.) sometimes give many of us the deceptive feel that we understand Paul, when indeed in many areas we do not?


At 6/14/2008 8:32 AM, Anonymous scott gray said...

we are reading someone else's mail. and we also treat this mail like it was more important than a personal letter.

in some ways, i think paul knew these letters would be perceived as more than personal mail, and wrote knowing we would read over the reciever's shoulder. but i also think that paul used these letters to think out loud, so that each letter (the 'original' at least, not the redacted results) is a theological snapshot, with the 'temporariness' of any 'snapshot of the moment.'

we deify the results, i think, instead of appreciating the process of paul's 'theologizing' (st. anselm's 'faith seeking understanding,' for instance).

At 6/14/2008 1:04 PM, Anonymous steph said...

That's hilarious! You're dead right (in reading things differently from the intended audience though, not of course in following Wright:-)).

At 6/14/2008 7:09 PM, Anonymous Angie Van De Merwe said...

Edward, I wish more believed as you. But, unfortunately, it is true that Christians have dogmatized Paul and attempt to apply his advice to every situation! It is hard not to loose heart.

At 6/15/2008 1:50 AM, Anonymous Angie Van De Merwe said...

In light of what you've stated, are you suggesting that "training" the Gentiles in the right "ethic" is what Paul was trying to do? And it is the creation/covenant model that Paul underwrites?

This would be palatable to me IF it were not all contained within Scripture. For one has to believe that Scirpture has some supernatural understanding of "god" and "special revelation"...Scriptures were written by men in seeking to understand "god" and was an ethnocentric understanding of "history". Two comments can be made about the "historicity" of Scripture;1) all history is ethnocentric, because it is written from a "perspective" 2.) Not all of Scripture is "historical", but myth, or story..Scripture was also written by men who were seeking a way to understand what had happened to them in their context and experience and some of Scripture was written with scribal interests... "meaning making" was helpful to "bear up" under persecution, disappointment, and suffering...
And I'm "afraid" that there are Christians "out there" that would "train" in righteousness by bringing suffering upon another "for God's purposes" and call it "discipline". This is no less than what Islamic fundamentalist do in rendering "right ordering" of life...
Maybe I am misguided, but I am still pursuing a "reason for faith"...

At 6/15/2008 10:49 AM, Anonymous Ranger said...

Interesting thoughts, I'm pretty sure I've read them before though. Are those copied and pasted from something you've posted elsewhere? More on your comment in my response to Chris.

First, where did you get that story at the end? I agree with Steph, it's hilarious! Was it in Thiselton's book? I've heard his book is great, but didn't know it was funny too.

I think Ed's comment is a fine example of your overall point. We come to Paul with our own questions based on our modernistic mindsets (or anti-modernistic, postmodern...or one of the various other epistemologies in our pluralistic society). We come to Paul with our churched, non-churched and anti-churched backgrounds. We come to Paul with our Western or Eastern cultural backgrounds (as someone living in China let me assure you that this makes a huge difference, and that we don't even ask near the same types of questions). And in this mess of backgrounds that define who we are, we attempt to read the text and find the meaning of it.

If we read the text solely from our perspective and don't seek to find the questions Paul is actually answering or the situations he is addressing, then he will surely come off as the cult leader Ed is portraying him as. Ed's portrait based solely on the stranger passages of 1st Corinthians looks very much like a David Koresh or Yisrael Hawkins. If we stop at the question, "Why would Paul ever say that?" (especially when what he says clashes with our western mindsets) then Ed's statements are surely justified.

But, if we move deeper into the text, looking behind what Paul is saying, searching the cultural context, probing for the situational context and seeking to understand the context in the greater narrative, then we will find Paul's real questions and see how these strange passages answer them.

At 6/15/2008 4:36 PM, Anonymous Looney said...

This post reminded me of Deep Thought in The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy. Douglas Adams' conclusion was that finding out what the correct question was would involve serious damage to the brain.

Yes, to some extent we are looking at someone else's mail. On the other hand, Colossians 4:16 says,

"After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea."

There is 2 Corinthians 3:2 -

"You yourselves are our letter, written on our heats, known and read by everyone".

And 1 Thessalonians 5:27 -

"I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers."

Paul has anticipated that others will read his mail and given instructions that this is what should be done; though I doubt he had an appreciation of the extent to which his mail would be read. Many others have written letters with the recognition that they would be read by a wider audience, such as Machiavelli's letter regarding an encounter with a prostitute. In the example Chris cited, the e-mail was only intended to be read by 'My Loving Wife' and it was written accordingly.

Paul was well aware that his letters would be read far and wide and wrote accordingly. He couldn't anticipate future cultures and civilizations, but he could highlight the concerns that he believed were culturally universal.

Thanks for helping me clarify something.

At 6/16/2008 11:09 AM, Anonymous Phil Sumpter said...

On the question of context, the canonical may add an interesting twist to the historical. Childs' (pbuh) latest book has been posthumously published. It's on how to read Paul in canonical context. If you haven't got time I could always review it for you ... ;)

At 6/16/2008 11:21 AM, Anonymous Phil Sumpter said...

Here's the blurb: Brevard Childs here turns his sharp scholarly gaze to the works of the apostle Paul and makes an unusual argument: the New Testament was canonically shaped, its formation a hermeneutical exercise in which its anonymous apostles and postapostolic editors collected, preserved, and theologically shaped the material in order for the evangelical traditions to serve successive generations of Christians. Childs contends that within the New Testament the Pauline corpus stands as a unit bookended by Romans and the Pastoral Epistles. He assigns an introductory role to Romans, examining how it puts the contingencies of Paul’s earlier letters into context without sacrificing their particularity. At the other end, the Pastoral Epistles serve as a concluding valorization of Paul as the church’s doctrinal model. By considering Paul’s works as a whole, Childs offers a way to gain a fuller understanding of the individual letters.

Mmmmm. We need to invent a way to typographically represent profuse salivating.

At 6/16/2008 6:58 PM, Anonymous Edward T. Babinski said...


Hi Ranger,

I agree with you that one must, "move deeper into the text, looking behind what Paul is saying, searching the...context, probing..."

Indeed, that is true of all texts:

A wise man can read a Bazooka Joe comic and discover profundity.

While an ass can read Dostoevsky and discover nothing but assininity.

However, after reading Paul even with the eyes of moderate/liberal theological vision (from Robert F. Capon to Paul Tillich's interpretations), I had to admit to myself that I would rather be in the company of a wise and sometimes funny ancient Greek philosopher or playwrite than in the company of a rabid uncompromising evangelist like Paul.

At 6/17/2008 12:16 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi All, no time tonight to comment on these stimulating responses, but I wanted to say to Ranger that I got the story at the end from an e-mail from my sister!

Edward, "I have questions about Paul, I hope they're "right.""

Nah, ALL wrong! Just kidding - no time to say anything else right now. I'll try and respond tomorrow. Thanks.


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